Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
Before fighting in Vietnam, Dan Van Buskirk had planned to join the Peace Corps. But his father and grandfather, veterans of the first two world wars, said they’d prefer he served his country in the military. So he enlisted in the Marines and became a recon sniper, one who prayed not only for himself and his buddies, but also for the enemies in his rifle’s sights.
“I prayed to know that we were all saved,” says Van Buskirk, a soft-spoken man of 65 whose hair and close-trimmed beard have both gone gray. “I took that on all my missions. And I really felt the power of prayer protected us a lot.”
But not everyone. Twice, his combat teams were decimated, once when he was too inexperienced to join a specific mission, a second time when he was off on a separate assignment. “That’s just something I never really got over,” he says. “But other than that, we got through it.” Which is different from being unscathed by it.
“The toughest mission of the combat veteran is getting their joy back,” he says. He returned home to bouts with post-traumatic stress disorder, and those led to bouts of employment uncertainty, sleepless nights and the end of a 21-year marriage.
These days, Van Buskirk thinks he’s found his joy again, and for good. Treatment and medication helped, but the tipping point may have been discovering how much strumming six strings could help. So in 2007, he co-founded a nonprofit endeavor called Guitars for Vets, which paired military veterans with guitar teachers, and in many cases, guitars. He hopes to do something similar with another endeavor, this one centered not on guitars, but dogs.
Van Buskirk was walking point on a jungle patrol in Vietnam some 45 years ago, when a German shepherd blocked him from taking another step. And because of that, he didn’t trip a booby-trapped grenade. Another time, he was with troops traversing a rice paddy, very much out in the open, dog alongside. The pooch’s ears perked up. Van Buskirk instinctively hit the deck. Bullets pierced the air where his chest had been moments earlier.
“So a dog saved my life twice,” he says.
Coming full circle in a way, he has founded HAVEN – Hounds and Vets Empowered Now – the idea being to match homeless or sheltered dogs with veterans, letting them help each other.
Van Buskirk shares all of this across a typical coffee shop table inside an atypical coffee shop. He does so with a relaxed demeanor, one he admits isn’t always present when he’s out in public. But in this environment, there’s no nervousness. “Because there are other vets here,” he says.
Stenciled along one edge of the whitewashed wooden surface is the word “Dryhootch,” and underneath that, a motto: “Great coffee… A greater cause.”
On the walls around him are reminders of that cause: a camouflaged combat helmet; a folded American flag that once flew over Baghdad; a display of patches from various armed forces units; a blue star service flag, the kind families hang in their windows to represent a relative who’s on active military duty. Near the entrance is a bulletin board covered with fliers, brochures and posters, their subjects running the gamut from poetry readings to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and the most poignant of suicide statistics. “Every 65 minutes,” reads one prominent banner, “a Vet commits suicide.”
At other tables, some of Van Buskirk’s fellow veterans, and perhaps some non-vets, sip on coffee and tea. They are comfortable in this place, a caffeinated oasis where they can chat with people who know just what they’ve been through, where they share in each other’s troubles, and in each other’s joy.
To get there, just walk toward the flags, Stars and Stripes on top, POW/MIA just below.
They flutter near Brady Street and Humboldt Avenue, across from Glorioso’s Italian Market and Art Smart’s Dart Mart, next door to the Zoom Room dog-training facility. They guard the type of nondescript two-story building that’s easily missed if you’re not looking for it, set back from the street in a semi-fenced-off compound.
But the engraved brick pavers leading from sidewalk to front door serve as an open invitation, to veterans and civilians alike. They wind through a large patio with metal tables and chairs. Names gracing many of the bricks, most accompanied by a military rank or branch, declare their silent support of the endeavor beyond. Up the wooden barracks-like steps and beyond the doorway, you’ll find a small cafe.
Men and women occupy some of the half-dozen tables, including the larger, wooden square table in the center. Patrons place their orders from a simple counter, and if the order is coffee, it’s filled with the juice from Stone Creek’s beans. A few baked goods are available, too, but they can be tough sells, because chances are someone has brought free cookies or cake to share. Instead of the requisite tip jar, the counter holds a collection bin for donations to Dryhootch, and it is a metal ammo box. Customers who want a bag of coffee beans choose how they want it labeled: Marine Mud, Army Bunker Brew, Navy Destroyer, Air Force JP4 Jet Fuel, Coast Guard Seizure or VA Transfusion. It’s all the same coffee, but “99 percent of the time,” says Dryhootch employee Liz Faraglia, “they care about which label.”
A hallway at the back of the café leads to a stairway, which heads up to more private environs. The hall passes a bathroom that serves both genders, necessitating a sign above the toilet with Uncle Sam pointing straight ahead: “I want you,” he declares, “to put the seat down. Please respect our women veterans and patrons.”
Upstairs, Bob Curry settles into a brown, cushiony couch. Several other plush chairs and sofas encircle a coffee table, eschewing the cafe environment for more of a clubhouse feel. Often, veterans’ support groups hold meetings here, but now, the unassuming man with a slight belly paunch and receding salt-and-pepper hairline is explaining how he founded Dryhootch. It’s a path that takes two hours to only partially travel, and it wanders through dark, dark places.
Curry did stuff for the U.S. Army that wasn’t officially happening in a war that wasn’t officially a war. His mail was delivered to Vietnam, but he often wasn’t there to get it, thanks to all those recon flight missions in Laos. He saw death aplenty, survived plenty of his own near-death experiences, and returned to the U.S. via the Seattle airport. There, his welcome-home party featured protesters throwing eggs and chicken guts. “I went into the airport,” he says, “took my uniform off, stuffed it in a garbage can and said, ‘This never happened.’”
He built a life, a career and raised a family. And it all imploded in 2002 when he drank and drove a car and killed a man. Booze hadn’t become a problem until his late 30s, which coincided with the late 1980s. “Right in there, the Gulf War hit,” he says, “It’s like somebody flipped a switch in my head.” The Vietnam memories came back. He drank to try to stop them, and started getting drunk-driving tickets, his fourth coming with the fatality. He tried suicide in jail.
Curry didn’t know it, but his alcoholism was directly linked to PTSD. Because of that, he was found not guilty of the DUI homicide by reason of mental disease or defect, and put in a state mental hospital. Afterward, in a halfway house run by Mark Flower, Curry devoted himself to the Dryhootch idea. Now Flower, himself an Army vet, is Dryhootch’s director of community programs.
“Bob had his journey,” Flower will tell you. “Dryhootch doesn’t happen without Bob being that motivating factor.”
In simple terms, Curry conceived of Dryhootch because he killed someone, and he wants to prevent someone else from repeating his story. “That was the only way that I could live with myself,” he says. “To me, this is payback.”
The coffee shop’s doors opened in 2010, with the blessing of a Brady Street neighborhood that was the focal point of Milwaukee’s Vietnam-era protests. The idea was to create a place where vets could get together, a place without drugs or alcohol, an alternative to the bar scene, and an avenue toward help beyond what Veterans Affairs facilities provide. “Only 7 percent of veterans use the VA,” Curry says. “The VA is part of this care, but I think it’s irresponsible for everyone to think the government is taking care of this.” Witness the national outcry over treatment delays at VA facilities, a firestorm for VA leadership and the Obama administration that’s sparked widespread investigations.
Top of mind for Curry was providing a place where vets would feel comfortable in their own skin, but not be completely sequestered. “We’re all part of the community. We all come together as a community,” Curry says. “We didn’t want the stigma that this is just a place for troubled vets.”
If a vet happens to be troubled, Dryhootch’s mission is to point him or her in the right direction for help, not as a caregiver, but as a facilitator. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit is supported mainly through grants and donations, and it places a heavy emphasis on peer-to-peer assistance, veteran helping fellow veteran. The building hosts a range of meetings, serious ones for PTSD support groups and Narcotics Anonymous, and more casual get-togethers for, say, veterans over 60 or those with an interest in art. It also hosts a lot of people who just want a cup of coffee and an outlet for their laptop.
But Dryhootch’s footprint extends well beyond the Brady Street location. Its Forward Operating Base on National Avenue, just across the street from the Zablocki VA Medical Center, has the feel of a tiny hotel lobby, yet it’s become a major component in putting vets on the proper path to help. Other outposts have sprouted in Madison and Janesville, as well as Illinois and Michigan, and further expansion is expected. “What we do here is not unique,” Curry says. “If this problem is in Milwaukee, it’s everywhere.”
On random days at the Brady Street Dryhootch, you will meet men like Flower, who wonders why more non-vets don’t come into the coffee shop and rarely leaves a conversation without giving a hug. Or you’ll meet Rob Goodman, who was an Army infantryman in Vietnam long before he founded First Stage, the popular Milwaukee children’s theater. Or you will meet a man who says he prefers sleeping by the river so he won’t attack his family during a war flashback.
You might see patrons volunteering to take out the trash. You might hear conversations about the Packers. You might see an open box of sealed notes made by schoolkids, with various salutations: “to GI Joe,” “To A Hero,” “to our veteran, thank you.”
On one Tuesday, it just so happens that the four women seated at the café’s big, square table served in four different military branches. Vera Roddy worked maintenance on Air Force plane parts, Lorri Martin was in the Navy stationed at Pearl Harbor, Linda Dancker was a Vietnam-era Marine and Nicole Hyke-Cintron’s Army National Guard service took her to Iraq.
Here at Dryhootch, they got to know each other through a group called the Artful Warriors. Originally, it was a women-only group, but that didn’t last long. Turns out some of the guys wanted to do some art, too, as men like Mike Brooks and Manny Mora will attest. “We’ve adopted them,” Roddy laughs, and the men laugh along with her.
But for all of their art projects, they gather mostly for the art of conversation. “When you come in here,” says Hyke-Cintron, her wavy, shoulder-length brown hair framing a wide smile, “you automatically can relate with everyone in here.” A mother of three – two teenagers and the newborn at the table – she was in Iraq as recently as 2010, and she mustered out of the guard in 2012.
She learned about Dryhootch while going through reorientation after her deployment. Bob Curry himself explained to the returning soldiers what Dryhootch was about and how it could help them. “It’s the only briefing that I remember,” Hyke-Cintron says. “It was because of his personal story of prison and alcohol, and just letting people know they don’t have to turn to substances or anything else. Come here if you need the help – it was just him reaching out to our generation with his story and vision that was just touching.”
She looks at Vietnam veterans through a different prism these days. Dryhootch has a way of transforming how they’re perceived, and perhaps perceive themselves, taking the image of long-troubled loners and shifting it to one of active mentors. The men and women, now in their 60s, see their latest duty as keeping younger combatants out of the same rabbit holes from which they’ve emerged.
“I had the stereotype that all Vietnam veterans are homeless, under bridges, alcoholics, drug abusers,” Hyke-Cintron says. “You get to meet these people and sit here and talk to them, and you’re like, OK, that stereotype’s out the window. They’re here because they want to help us.” Her hazel eyes get glassy.
“She’s gonna make me emotional,” says Dancker, the silver-haired and ruddy-cheeked retired Milwaukee County deputy sheriff. “Times have changed. Women vets say to me, ‘If it wasn’t for you Vietnam veterans, we never would’ve been where we are today.’ No. I admire you because you went to combat.”
Brooks, an African-American Army vet who served in Iraq, has been watching the conversation play out. “What happens around a cup of coffee is kind of magical,” he says. “Sharing a meal or beverage, it’s the most civilized thing that you can do.”
On Feb. 15, 2014, the hall inside the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center swells with civilians, active-duty military and a slew of veterans. Large video screens display a slide show of what looks like pictures from a cross-country vacation.
The photos are indeed from across the country, but not from a typical vacation. Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson took them while walking from Milwaukee to Los Angeles on their Veterans Trek, a 2,700-plus-mile journey to raise money and awareness for Dryhootch, and to continue fostering their own reintegration into civilian society. Both are vets of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Voss with the Army, Anderson with the Army National Guard, and they hit their fundraising goal of $100,000. This is their welcome-home reception, held just a week after the walk concluded, and it is a full-blown celebration.
Curry makes a few remarks. So does Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, the highest-ranking military officer serving in Wisconsin. Other speeches come from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and also Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who flew to L.A. to greet Voss and Anderson at the finish line. “We do a good job in this country, to some degree, of investing all of our money in preparing and going to war,” Abele says later. “We don’t do nearly a good enough job of taking care of vets when they get back.”
Voss and Anderson, sporting beards far less scraggly than they were a week ago, keep their remarks brief. Voss thanks all those who supported the trek, then tells a few stories from the road, tales of receiving help from complete strangers, veterans and civilians alike, over their five-month journey. He asks for a moment of silence to honor a vet who’d committed suicide, and whose funeral was that very day.
Anderson follows and speaks of how war not only affects those who fight it, but all who later interact with the fighters, notably loved ones and children. He tells the story of one National Guard veteran who followed the blog posts from their trip and was inspired to seek professional help for her postwar issues. “I just think that it’s something that two bearded idiots got someone to end up going to talk to someone,” he says.
Two days later, the bearded idiots are upstairs at Dryhootch, both with coffee cups within reach. They recount more about their trek, not just from Milwaukee to the West Coast, but from battlefield to the homefront. They speak in glowing terms of how Dryhootch helped the transition.
“Being around other veterans and hearing them,” Anderson says, “the peer-to-peer stuff, it’s not only a necessity, it’s a requirement.”
They did not return from war to the protesters who greeted their Vietnam brethren, but to more subtle challenges with not-so-subtle impacts. Voss touches on just one. “The only job I could find after getting out was security,” he says. “Anthony, same thing. The first time he omitted his veteran status on an application, he was hired. For security. There’s a lot of stigma around veterans, and it transfers over to the workplace.”
Anderson picks up the theme. “They desire the qualities of the veteran, but they’re afraid of the baggage the veteran might… might… bring,” he says. “There’s a misconception that all veterans have PTSD,” and that those who do are a constant danger.
They hope their walk helped change some minds. They hope a planned documentary about it, Almost Sunrise, changes more. And before the conversation ends, they share hopes of facilitating future, albeit shorter, versions of vet treks, perhaps for themselves, but definitely for other veterans.
Cups empty, they head back downstairs. Anderson is greeted by his wife, Holly, who is seated at a table. Curry is there, too, and everyone chats a bit. Then Voss has to leave, and soon afterward, the Andersons do too.
They head for the Dryhootch front door and walk into the world, across bricks engraved with so many veterans’ names, two vets revitalized. ■
Howie Magner is a senior editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at email@example.com.